Let the Party Begin

I am dreaming as I write this. Forgive me if it goes astray. The artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, and currently known as simply the Artist, has been baffling critics and fans for the better part of the decade. Ever since his 1993 decision to change his name to a squiggly glyph, Prince has maximized his professional and personal idiosyncrasies. He scrawled Slave on his face, flung off the shackles of his contract with Warner Bros., then released a series of leviathanic albums through an independent distributor. He got married, had a child, and then refused to comment on the death of that child from a rare fused-skull syndrome. He stopped being a recluse, hit the road running with a funk supertour that included Chaka Khan and Larry Graham, and then supposedly joined Graham as a member of the Jehovah's Witness faith.

Basically he's been all over the map. But now Prince-watchers have him just where they want him. Why? Because (as your calendars indicate) it's 1999. And 1999, of course, will be the Artist's year.

Way back in 1982, in fact, when he was merely a 23-year-old polymorphously perverse polymath who dabbled brilliantly in rock, pop, funk, punk, and soul music, he composed, performed, arranged, and produced a little song you might remember. Titled "1999," it kicked off the album of the same name and was a searing, six-minute-plus slice of space-funk that cemented his position as the most innovative artist on this or any other planet.

1999, the album, wasn't all about "1999," the single. Prince's first double album, it was also his first record to hit the Top 10, and it established him as the premier star of the decade. "Little Red Corvette" and "Delirious" also charted, and the second half of the disc, full of dense, robotic funk, contains some of Prince's most challenging music. "Automatic" weds new-wave pop to the high technology of the day; "Lady Cab Driver" is a perfectly perverse amalgam of the profane and the sacred; and "D.M.S.R." locks down on a groove that would make the Gap Band run for cover. The album even had social impact: A few years later, songs such as "Let's Pretend We're Married" made 1999 a flash point for the rock censorship controversy.

But make no mistake: 1999 (the year) will be all about "1999" (the single). Starting with the first spark of January and running until the final embers of December die out, Prince's first big hit will blanket the airwaves, assuming control of TV, radio, and the Internet. If you think Sly Stone's "Everyday People" has been overused by Toyota, just wait until the advertisers get their mitts on "1999." Marketeers like to talk about mindshare, the gross presence of a brand or product. Over the next couple months, "1999" is going to have everyone's mind, and it's not going to share.

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, the song is the top request from ad agencies nationwide, and bids are starting at $1 million, roughly four times what's usually paid for exclusive licensing rights for a pop song. Whoever ends up buying the song will make the song's owner rich.

There's only one problem with this scenario: The Artist doesn't own "1999." Or rather, he doesn't own it entirely.

As the song's composer, he receives residuals whenever it's played, but a high percentage of the spoils goes to the owner of the master recording. And the master of "1999," along with the master of every other song Prince submitted to Warner Bros. from 1978 until 1996, remains the property of the record company. Warner is already scrambling to profit from the song's timeliness. Promotional copies of a reissued "1999" single went out to radio stations in November, and the label is also shipping new versions of the original album and Prince's greatest-hits package with stickers highlighting the song.

So what's a former funk legend who's lost use of his name and masters to do?
Well, here's where we enter the fascinating world of American copyright law. Although Prince isn't master of the masters any longer, he does have the right to record a new performance of his old composition. He could update "1999," deepening the bass, tweaking the lyrics, overlaying a rap by one of the lame rappers he seems to favor. He could create a 45-minute party mix designed to be played at New Year's parties on December 31, 1999. He could even allow his song to be worked over by a hotshot producer, and rumors suggest that he's doing exactly that, calling on Miami native Cesar Sogbe, a veteran world-music mixman who engineered tracks on Prince's Chaos and Disorder and Emancipation LPs. In this case, The Artist's new version would vie with Prince's old version for top billing.

But there's another possible outcome in the great "1999" sweepstakes. According to the terms of music copyright law, Prince could create a sound-alike version of his original hit -- an absolutely identical sound-alike version.

That's right. As long as he doesn't use the original Warner Bros. masters, he could vanish into his studio, fabricate a note-for-note replica of the original song, and release it to radio as competition for the original "1999."

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